Pakistan: What chance Talibanisation?

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Fri Feb 23 18:09:56 MST 2001

DAWN - Opinion

18 February 2001 Sunday 23 Ziqa'ad 1421

What chance Talibanization?

By Mohammad Waseem

An interesting debate is going on in millions of households in Pakistan
today: it is about the prospect of Taliban-like groups taking over the
country. Some dread the prospect as a doomsday scenario; others pray for it
as a panacea for the ills of society.

Are the Pakistani counterparts of the Taliban coming to power in the
country? Many western capitals find the prospect horrifying. At home, the
articulate section of the population, including generals, bureaucrats,
politicians, professionals and businessmen, is apprehensive about the
political ascendancy of what is understood to be a medieval version of
Islam. The silent majority - mostly Sunni but also Shia - shudders at the
idea of gun-toting madrassah students becoming their masters.

Others are more circumspect about the role of the Taliban. These represent a
small but influential section of the power elite in this country. They
believe that there is no imminent danger of a Taliban-like force coming up
and threatening the present state system in Pakistan. As protagonists of the
cause of the Taliban in Afghanistan, they are equally firm in their belief
that the elite in Pakistan should not fear that a group similar to the
Taliban will rise to power in this country.

What kind of people are we talking about in the context of coming to power?
These people are literally Taliban, the seekers of knowledge in madrassahs
located all over the country. They typically, if not exclusively, have
belonged to madrassahs at one time or another. There are five major chains
of madrassahs based on Deobandi, Wahabi, Barelvi, Shia and Jamaat-i-Islami
(JI) schools of thought. Two of these - Deobandi and Wahabi madrassahs - are
believed to be churning out a brand of Islamic militants who have reportedly
become a threat to the current social, cultural and political life in

Who are these students? Various government reports and journalistic
investigations point to their origin in a lower middle class and small-town
background. They are puritans in religious matters. They are socially
embedded in extremely insecure circumstances, caught in the throes of rapid
demographic, sectoral or professional changes, usually at the wrong end. In
many cases, a tense family background, characterized by financial straits,
plays a significant role in shaping the personality of these students along
authoritarian lines. The curriculum removes these students from the world of
reality. Even more than the content of education, which comprises religious
classics, it is the style of education which turns them into unquestioning
pupils of an overbearing teacher. The cult of teacher is legendary in
madrassahs. There is no room for an open discussion, for a pluralist
discourse, or for a philosophical argument. Regimentation is the order of
the day.

The gender-based education leads to an all-male perspective on life. These
men are typically remote from the usual family situation. There is no daily
interaction with women in any capacity, as fathers, brothers or sons, much
less as husbands. There is no role for woman in this classical world of
learning, except that she is considered a source of distraction from pursuit
of piety.

A new job-orientation is visible in and around madrassahs. There is a
persistent demand that their graduates be considered at par with their
counterparts from colleges and universities for the purpose of recruitment
into services. The present government has shown an inclination to provide
computers and other implements of modernity to bring madrassahs into the
mainstream educational and employment sectors. Those from the established
centres of higher learning find such policy measures attempts to strengthen
forces of orthodoxy and reaction.

Concern about the Taliban and possible Talibanization of Pakistan is now so
deep among certain elite sections of society that it has led to a new genre
of religious threat perceptions. Taliban-like jihadi groups are now feared
the most, followed by the two factions of Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and
only after that the JI. The JI's Islamic politics is now looked at by the
liberal intelligentsia and western diplomats in more positive terms than
ever before.

But how to define Talibanization? First and foremost, this process is taking
place away from those circles where the state elite operates. It is in the
narrow lanes and back streets and dark rooms and open spaces where a new
social and cultural ambience is taking birth. It is characterized by various
types of social pressures which shape the lives of individuals living in a
particular locality. The state elite is not convinced about the imminent
Talibanization of society, largely because this process is not part of its
every-day life or experience.

Talibanization can be understood in terms of the emergent vigilante culture.
Local vigilantes - guardians of public morality - have become a factor in
determining the patterns of social behaviour, not so much through open
bullying as by exerting atmospheric pressure through local networks. There
is a whole range of people in this category, from mohalla elders to the
mosque-based brotherhoods of relatively conservative businessmen, retired
military officers or returnees from the Gulf.

The vigilante culture is spreading its tentacles to various aspects of
social life in the locality. Social mobility of women is a special focus of
attention. Various degrees of seclusion of women is prescribed and enforced,
especially in and around female educational and professional institutions.
Typically, the Tablighi groups of four or five persons knock at the door and
put moral pressure on residents to accompany them to the mosque. Those who
do not oblige run the risk of social ostracism and a vilification campaign
in the locality of being presented as bad Muslims.

Entertainment through the visual medium, especially TV, has attracted the
opprobrium of the Islamist elements in recent years. There have been several
examples of bitter arguments and clashes at bus stops or on the buses, about
running a film on TV during travel. TV is increasingly looked upon as a
devil's device - an instrument of corruption. One Islamic group includes
reports of breaking TV sets and thus tearing satan into pieces in its
publications. Recently a section of cable TV operators in Peshawar was
prevented from operating their channels through mob action.

The common perception is that state power has abdicated in favour of street
power. Street action or the threat of its use is the new way of shaping
events at the local level. This action can be against Christians, Hindus,
Ahmedis, or against newspaper offices for publishing offensive material.
There is no patience for the slow process of law. In common perception, a
case filed in a court is as good as dead.

The threat of recourse to street action by these militant groups has
apparently secured effective results. Benazir Bhutto launched the initiative
for streamlining the operational aspects of madrassahs relating to
allegations of foreign funds, training in the use of arms and sectarian
syllabi. Under threat of street action, she backtracked. Nawaz Sharif tried
to pick up the thread but buckled under the threat of violent opposition.
General Pervez Musharraf proposed amendments in the procedural aspects of
the provisions of Blasphemy Law but withdrew in the face of threat of street
action by religious parties and groups. Maulana Akram Awan's threat to march
on Islamabad similarly resulted in an official climb-down and attempts to
appease him.

Power was till recently defined and exercised in legal, institutional and
constitutional terms. That is less and less so as time passes. Those who
wield power in these terms, i.e. those who studied in western-style colleges
and universities and entered into English-based professions and services,
would soon be rendered powerless and ineffective if the present trend
continues. Replacement of state power-in-reserve by street power-in-action
is in the process in small bits, sometimes imperceptibly but often clearly

That is hearsay, overreaction, even hallucination, claims the state elite.
Nothing untoward happens in the corridors of power where the administration
is able to follow the established rules of the game. How could the state
elite believe that it is going to be the captive of those who have been its
clients and proteges. In its view, it is the westernized liberals who feel
unduly alarmed over the prospect of Taliban coming to power in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the non-sectarian, non-violent and non-ideologized part of the
population, at about 99 per cent, feels constrained under the new culture in
pursuit of religious ritualism. Generally speaking, it has been rendered
non-functional and inactive. The absence of elections, party work and legal
and constitutional framework of public activity has left the field open to
religious militants. It is often complained that the state has tied the
hands of society and made it vulnerable to the muscle power of the so-called
holy warriors.

The issue of arms in the hands of members of jihadi groups has made frequent
headlines. The interior minister, Gen Moinuddin Haider recently resolved to
eradicate the gun-culture from society. The press in turn criticized him for
issuing such a statement for the umpteenth time and yet doing nothing in
this regard. The violence syndrome which combines three factors of
possession of arms, training in the use of arms and motivation to use arms
continues to operate.

Has the state devised a strategy about a situation where militants would
come back from that external engagement to fight on the internal front? Or
is it too early? Is this alarmist scenario a mere brainchild of westernized
liberals who see the ghost of the Taliban behind every flicker of light on
the housetops? These questions need to be addressed seriously.

© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2001

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